At a talk held at the New School in New York City on November 19, New York University (NYU) Professor Nikhil Pal Singh shared a letter he had written about Professor Steven Salaita this past summer. It was a confidential, peer-review letter that helped the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign decide to hire Salaita as a tenured professor in its Department of Native American Studies. The university’s Board of Trustees later rescinded the job offer, in response to statements Salaita made on Twitter expressing outrage at the Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip in July and August 2014. The assault, known as Operation Protective Edge, killed over 2,500 Palestinians.
Although he debated whether to read the letter, Singh said he wanted to show that Salaita was a “very serious scholar.” His firing was a sign of “U.S. violence: a person deprived of his livelihood for expressing his viewpoint,” Singh said. Salaita was also a participant in the New School talk and was present for the reading.
To many, the letter, which recognized Salaita’s scholastic merit, stressed the injustice of his case even further. But, his is just one example of hundreds when it comes to restrictions on free speech and academic freedom experienced at U.S. universities by scholars of the Middle East and professors treading on certain issues related to the region, namely the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Choosing Funding over Academic Freedom
Salaita’s tweets criticizing Israeli policies in Gaza were just a “pretext” for his sacking. “I was really fired,” Salaita told the audience at the talk, “because influential donors said they would stop giving money if [the University of Illinois] ended up retaining me.”
The donors – largely pro-Israeli sympathizers– sent emails to Phyllis M. Wise, chancellor of the Urbana-Champaign campus, who ultimately withheld Salaita’s appointment. The emails, only three of which have been released to the public according to Salaita, threatened to withdraw and deny future funding to the university should Salaita’s appointment be finalized. In recent weeks, Salaita filed a lawsuit against the university for failing to produce the emails and other pertinent documents.
“Campuses are places where broader politics converged in localized form,” Salaita said, describing how Israeli lobbying plays into the politics of hiring and other decisions in academic institutions.
The effects of the Israel lobby’s penetrating influence is exemplified by the controversy surrounding a talk at Brooklyn College in February 2013 in which Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian human rights activist and co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and Judith Butler, a Jewish-American scholar, were to speak.
In an attempt to scuttle the talk, members the Israel lobby and Congress threatened to take funding away from the college, if it proceeded with the planned event. In an email interview, Barghouti told Muftah the incident went beyond previous Israeli “displays of new McCarthyism — one that uses unconditional allegiance to Israel as the litmus test of loyalty.”
Reminiscent of this incident, local politicians have asked Brooklyn College administrators to cancel a scheduled talk with Salaita and Katherine Franke. Ironically, the talk was titled: “Silencing Dissent: The University vs. Academic Freedom.” The event went forward as planned.
Claiming “Bias” in Middle East Studies
Israel lobbying powerhouses, including The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Anti-Defamation League (founded in 1913), have an active historical record, and were particularly vociferous in the 1980s. During that decade, they consistently attempted to prove pro-Arab bias in Middle East Studies departments across the country, according to Zachary Lockman’s book, Contending Visions of the Middle East. Today, so-called “watch lists” and material accusing scholars and professors of being anti-Israel owe their origins to propaganda circulated by these groups in the 1980s, as a means of showing that anti-Semitism was rampant in America’s institutions of higher learning.
“After the September 11 attacks,” Lockman writes, “some on the far-right end of the Middle East studies spectrum exploited this […]moment to launch an assault on scholars in Middle East studies who did not kowtow to the views of the Bush administration and the Israeli right.”
Many Middle East Studies scholars were attacked. The organization, Campus Watch, was created soon thereafter to directly target Middle East Studies departments in North America.
James Gelvin, renowned professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, said in a phone interview with Muftah that, these days, student lobbying groups could have more far-reaching effects, than previously expected, in furthering the agenda of groups like Campus Watch. As Gelvin pointed out, students can use their “financial capability” to lobby those in positions of power, including members of Congress, to defund Middle East Studies programs by cutting their most vital financial sources, namely, federal funds.
Title VI of the Higher Education Act, which pays for language and area studies at U.S. universities, is one of these precious financial lifelines. Programs authorized under Title VI include the popular Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellowships, which this year awarded $63.3 million to colleges and universities for students pursuing language training.
“I am very worried about the future of the Title VI funding because language training is the biggest item on the budget of Middle East Studies departments,” Gelvin said. He added that lobbying groups have falsely reported that centers, which used this funding, are politicized. A September 2014 report published by the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights, a cooperation that aims to advance the rights of the Jewish people, publicized a list of one-sided events and talks held at various U.S. universities that purportedly demonstrated biases in programming, all thanks to “Title VI funding.”
The report was read by some heavyweights, such as Congresswoman Nita Lowey who sent a letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan urging him to adopt standards for creating more balance in Middle East Studies departments. The lack thereof, she wrote in her letter, “could engender anti-Semitism or criticism of Israel that devolves into the defamation of the Jewish people.”
Mal Kline, Executive Director of the Washington-based non-profit research group, Accuracy in Academia, one of the signatories of a joint statement appended to and agreeing with the Brandeis report, said he is distrustful of all federal funding of education, not just student aid. Kline enumerated the various dangers in a phone interview with Muftah: “Either you’re going to have the administration involved or you’re going to have some form of censorship or taxpayer-funded license and promotion of something they might not necessarily agree with.”
Kline probed the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s Department of Education records to evaluate whether Title VI funding was misused in Middle East Studies departments across the country. “The Title VI programs at a minimum could provide some kind of balance,” Kline said. “I have looked in vain for a pro-Israeli speaker or course. There are two sides of this [Palestinian-Israeli] conflict, and the natural and academic thing is to look into evidence for both.”
Student Groups and Activists Fight Back
Students organizing around issues of academic freedom are very much aware of the effects of funding control and manipulation. In an interview with Muftah, Shafeka Hashash, co-director of NYU chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, said that funding could become a point of concern for scholars who want to study other sensitive issues or minorities in the Middle East.
“Ideally, they should not be fearful of where the funding for such projects came from, especially if it is foreign funding from rich oil countries, for instance,” she argued. Worst of all, she added, it could determine what these academics teach and say in class.
Hashash’s group organized Salaita’s New York/New Jersey tour in November 2014, together with indigenous studies departments and other legal and activist groups. She believes the issue of academic freedom is a rallying call for many. Recent developments seem to support her view. For example, the campaign Open Hillel was created because of concerns among Jewish students about rules set by Hillel International, a center that organizes campus life for Jewish students.
The rules regulate the types of events and talks that can be held by Hillel chapters on U.S. campuses. .According to these rules, the organization’s chapters are prohibited from hosting or partnering with groups or individuals that support BDS, as well as those who “demonize” or “delegitimize” Israel. By contrast, one of Open Hillel’s aims is to open up dialogue on the subject of the Israeli-Palestine conflict in Jewish communities.
“These red lines and blanket characterizations have been used to silence debate and exclude prominent scholars, leaders, activists and organizations from mainstream Jewish life in American universities and institutions,” Naomi Dann, Open Hillel’s spokesperson, told Muftah.
In response to Open Hillel’s claims, David Eden, Hillel International’s Chief Administrative Officer, told Muftah that the chapters host thousands of activities annually, including many regarding Israel. The organization’s principles, he said, do “not interfere with academic speech on campus.” Eden believes, however, that the student activists and alumni promoting Open Hillel have gone too far in “pushing for pro-BDS programs at local Hillel chapters.”
Both sides of the conflict see U.S. campuses as key battlegrounds on the issue of Israel-Palestine. Some, like Barghouti, believe that academic boycotts directed at Israel are a critical component of the struggle for freedom in Palestine. Groups, such as The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), supported by the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees (PFUUPE), have called for the academic boycott of Israeli institutions on the basis of “their entrenched, decades-old complicity in planning, implementing and justifying Israel’s regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid.”
Israeli universities have been full-throated in supporting military assaults on Gaza, Barghouti continued, despite its staggering human cost. Violent repression of demonstrations, arrests of student activists, and the intimidation of critical academics have been ongoing on Israeli campuses. Most of all, Israeli universities have been involved in racial discrimination and suppression of free speech with regards to Palestinians.
Because of these circumstances, Barghouti argues that U.S. university campuses should have a role in criticizing Israel. “Administrations of hundreds of U.S. universities … suppress free speech when Israel or its policies are subject to critical and rational debate, condemnation or exposure,” Barghouti said.
“Palestine is the litmus test,” he continued, “but there is repression in cases involving diverse social justice and human rights struggles as well.” Finding solidarities and intersections with other oppressed groups, he explained further, can create a more fruitful and diverse academic debate on these issues.
Singh reaffirmed these perspectives as he read his letter to the audience at The New School. Salaita’s bold case, he said reminds “us of the solidarities and how to scale up our concern for social and economic justice.”